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Minnesota Senate Explores Data Disclosure Upgrades

Several years ago the Minnesota House adopted a friendlier and more modern system where each vote has its own Web page in a format easy for computer scripts to understand. The Senate did not adopt the same system, but that may change.

(TNS) -- The Pioneer Press’ analysis of voting in the Minnesota Legislature included only votes in the House of Representatives, not the Minnesota Senate.

That’s because the Senate does not make its roll call vote data as available as the House.

The Senate does release how each member votes on roll calls, but the information is only published in PDF files in daily Senate Journals. Those PDFs are extremely difficult for computers to understand and extract data from, so the Sunlight Foundation was unable to acquire Senate roll call data.

Several years ago the House adopted a friendlier and more modern system, where each vote has its own web page in a format easy for computer scripts to understand. At that time the Senate did not adopt the same system.

“There are all kinds of questions you can answer with that information when it’s been released as structured data that you can’t when it’s just a PDF,” said Emily Shaw, a senior analyst for the Sunlight Foundation.

Shaw said states with open legislative data have seen nonprofits and private companies set up new services to help the public use and understand legislative data.

The Sunlight Foundation’s 2013 Open Legislative Data Report Card gave Minnesota a C grade for openness and specifically criticized the unavailable Senate data as a reason.

Minnesota is one of just five states, Shaw said, where at least one legislative chamber didn’t make votes available in a machine-readable format.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Senate majority said they weren’t aware of the Senate’s technological shortcomings until the Pioneer Press inquired last week. She said the Senate would explore ways to open up its roll call data.

“We take very seriously the right of the public to have access to this information,” said Amelia Cerling, the Senate majority’s spokeswoman. “The Senate has published every vote in the public Senate Journal document … Technology has quickly evolved and the information you’ve shared is a clear indication we should to take a closer look at how we publish our information.”

Cerling said the Senate would reach out to the National Conference of State Legislatures for help making upgrades but noted that the Senate Rules Committee would have to approve any changes before they could be implemented.

©2016 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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